The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

Reviewed by Shoshi Ish-Horowicz

heart goes lastTo put this review into context, I’m a huge Margaret Atwood fan.  I haven’t read everything she’s written (fifteen novels, eight collections of short stories, not counting all of the children’s books, poetry and non-fiction), but I’m working on it and was hugely excited to learn that 2015 would see the publication of her most recent novel-length dystopia.

A little bit more context: I remember hearing Atwood getting slightly defensive during a radio interview over a decade ago, on the publication of Oryx and Crake, as she explained that speculative or science fiction was not a ‘departure’ for her.  She claimed, and I agree, that genre and popular fiction have always been important influences on her work.  Her Booker-winning The Blind Assassin refers as explicitly to pulp science fiction as her Booker-nominated Cat’s Eye does to mid-twentieth century horror magazines.  One of the joys of reading her fiction is identifying the numerous sources, from Tennyson to Mills and Boon, that are referenced, alluded to and woven into the narrative.

The Heart Goes Last begins promisingly.  Charmaine and Stan are living out of their car, attempting to find work and hope within desolate urban squalor; think Madaddam, but without the cults or advanced technology.  The disenfranchised roam the streets like zombies and there has been some kind of collapse of normal civilian life.  It’s a depressing but engaging start, especially as the determinedly perky Charmaine (a reinvented Charice from The Robber Bride, but less floaty) and Stan try to sustain traditional gender roles and relationship norms in a chaotic world.

Then there’s an abrupt shift of tone.  The novel moves from the Day of the Triffids meets Blade Runner underbelly of society to a Pleasantville dystopia.  Charmaine and Stan are accepted into the Positron Project, an experimental ‘prisons for profit’ scheme.  The deal is that they live in prison half the time, and the other half of their lives will be spent as civilians, generally doing the jobs created by the existence of the prison (guarding, catering and so on).  Apparently the maths works because life inside Positron is just Doris Day wonderful: no gangs, no crime, clean bed sheets and fluffy towels.  We’re told that one reason for the success of the project is that it can house twice as many people as expected; when Stan and Charmaine are in prison, their ‘alternates,’ an unknown couple, live in their civilian house.

Unsurprisingly, it is revealed that there is actually a dark world behind the shiny exterior of this ideal existence.  Stan and Charmaine’s marriage is tested by the sexual threat posed by their alternates and it turns out that several of the business ventures explored by Positron are far from benign.  Atwood has fun with all of the ways a seemingly perfect world can be subverted, including some cuddly teddy-bears that show up in the most disturbing and unexpected of places.  There’s even a cheeky nod towards The Handmaid’s Tale and the possibilities of romance with a chauffeur.  Then, abruptly, the action shifts to Las Vegas and the novel becomes a crime caper.  Atwood has claimed A Midsummer Night’s Dream as inspiration for The Heart Goes Last, and the jerky madcap pace of the novel certainly reflects the frenetic convolutions of Shakespeare’s comedy.

Some of the unevenness caused by all of these genre shifts may be a result of the book’s rather troubled publication history.  Originally an online project, with chapters published as a serial, it was then withdrawn from its internet home and turned into a full length novel.  Atwood has spoken about the structural changes this entailed (moving cliff-hangers, shifting backstory around), but is diplomatically silent about any other behind doors manoeuvring.  Maybe I’m trying to find excuses, because the book does feel experimental and slight in a way I don’t associate with Atwood’s novels.  Her trademark humour is there, but is far less consistent than in earlier works.  Similarly, the speculative fiction sets up interesting ideas, but they are not followed through in the masterful manner of The Handmaid’s Tale or the Madaddam trilogy.  While Atwood has played a lot with multiple genres before (two easy examples are Lady Oracle and The Penelopiad), The Heart Goes Last lacks the inner coherence which made such books so powerful.

Last year Atwood published Stone Mattresses, a wonderful collection of short stories that more than prove her enduring talent as a story-teller and prose writer. Individual sentences and paragraphs in The Heart Goes Last show her trademark skill and the imagination throughout the book is staggering.  This latest novel also suggests that she still has important things to say about serious issues, especially about gender, the economy and technology.   It is a bitter irony therefore that, loving her writing as I do, The Heart Goes Last is the last book I’d recommend to either an Atwood aficionado or newcomer.  I firmly believe her oeuvre has something for everyone, but this latest book is not her best.  If you’re a fan or new to her novels please read any, or all, of the prior works mentioned in this review before this one; don’t judge her on her most recent venture.

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Shoshi spends far too much of her time reading; she writes about this addiction at https://shoshibookblog.wordpress.com/

Read Shoshi’s Five Fascinating Facts About… Margaret Atwood in our BookBuzz Section here.

Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last (Bloomsbury: London, 2015). 978-0385540353, 320pp., hardback.

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